Like the doomed expedition it records, Valerian Albanov’s In the Land of White Death got lost for a long time and almost didn’t make it back. A firsthand account of a disastrous 1912 voyage to the Arctic Circle, written by a survivor, the book was originally published in Russian in 1917 and lay largely ignored, even by scholars of polar expeditions, until 1997. The new Modern Library edition is the first English translation, and it is, in every sense of the word, a find: a modest, unsentimental, quietly powerful story about man and nature that will be hard to put down even for those of us for whom “the Great Outdoors” usually means the stretch between our building and the nearest Sichuan takeout.
In August 1912, the schooner Saint Anna, with 24 souls aboard, set out from what is now Murmansk, on the Barents Sea, in search of new Arctic hunting grounds; what it found was trouble. And no wonder: The captain, Brusilov, was a complacent prig (Albanov was the ship’s navigator and second-in-command); only five of the people onboard were professional sailors; the ship was insufficiently provisioned; and – with autumn ice about to start forming – their departure was dangerously late. By October 15, the ship was locked in gigantic ice floes; by the time a year and a half had passed, it had drifted, still ice-bound, 2,400 miles to the north. In January 1914, Albanov requested permission to build a kayak and set off for a camp he knew of on Cape Flora in the Franz Josef archipelago, 235 miles to the south. Thirteen men went with him. Two survived.
What makes In the Land of White Death so good isn’t just the story – although the day-by-day account of Albanov’s struggles with terrifying weather, disease, hunger, meals of raw polar-bear liver, and the occasionally fatal foolishness of his men certainly makes for compelling reading. No: From the first, short paragraph of this book – which sets the scene, creates suspense, and whips up tremendous emotion in two crisp sentences – you know you’re in the hands of a born writer. “How many weeks and months have gone by,” go those opening lines, “since the day I left the Saint Anna and bade farewell to Lieutenant Brusilov! Little did I know that our separation was to be forever.” Here’s an economy of style that many a novelist might well envy.
Perhaps because they’re literally at the ends of the earth, the poles have always exerted as extreme a fascination for readers as for explorers. It’s as if, as our lives get more predictable, we crave more excess in our entertainments, more superlatives. (One popular account of Scott’s disastrous Antarctic expedition is called The Worst Journey in the World.) The recent proliferation of man-against-nature disaster best-sellers – The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air, Into the Wild (the latter two both by Jon Krakauer, who wrote the small and wholly dispensable preface to Albanov’s book) – suggests that in an age when you can trade stocks while walking down 72nd Street and everywhere looks much like everywhere else, our yearning for a sense that there are still places that impose themselves, with brutal authenticity, on man (rather than the other way around) has gotten more rather than less intense.
But Albanov’s narrative offers much more than vivid local color. Like so many of its genre, In the Land of White Death is, ultimately, a testament not so much to the power of nature as to a powerful and poignant human impulse: to record our confrontations with oblivion, to mark our presence here. At one dire point, Albanov slips into the icy sea and nearly drowns. What saves him, in a way, is writing: “The idea that no one would ever know how we had fought against these indomitable elements, and that our end would remain a mystery forever, was an unspeakable torture to me. My last ounce of strength rebelled against such an unsung disappearance.”
As it happened, I was reading Albanov’s book when the news broke that some of the bodies of the Russian crewmen who were trapped aboard the submarine Kursk last August had been finally recovered. What created a sensation was the discovery of another “lost” text, a scrawled account of what had happened, written by one of the crew in the face of certain death: his own final protest against the idea that no one would ever know how he had fought against the indomitable elements. It would seem that Albanov’s testament, now nearly a century old, still has much to tell us. Like its author, In the Land of White Death was almost lost; we’re lucky that they both made it back.